Naturalism vs. Supernaturalism: Framing the Debate

December 14, 2011

In modern times, naturalism and supernaturalism are the only serious worldview competitors. Naturalism — the scientific worldview — takes reality to be what verifiable observation and scientific method discovers. Much has been explained by science, and much more will be.

As science has shined its light of knowledge farther into nature, religion’s God has fled to hide beyond all the stars.

Supernaturalism can now only appeal to the margins and obscure corners of human experience: uncanny sights and sounds, spooky feelings of being watched, tortured emotions and deep dreads, engrossing tales of magical deeds, reassuring voices of priestly incantations, self-righteous feelings of moral authority, and the like. Theology was once the mighty explainer of all things in heaven and on earth, but by now it can only take comfort in whatever science has not yet explained. Theology, that architect of soaring systems of vast thought, has been reduced to hunting and stitching together tattered scraps of mysteries.  

Science, and technology’s benefits, do more to render religion impotent than any amount of philosophizing. Yet, it may not be science’s role to deliver the fatal stroke to supernatural theology. Science’s intrinsic humility and modesty forbids taking that execution’s role. In a way, science supplies the only fuel left for theological machinations. Science is as good at finding new curiosities as it is at eventually explaining them — today’s science is a “to do” list as well as a “done” list. Theology snatches at any novel curiosities and shows off what it did not earn by honest toil, holding them high and shouting “A mystery! A mystery! Look at what science can’t explain!” And so another generation of theologians is kept busy with clever sewing, trying to see an image of their God in their quilted scraps. A pretty patchwork quilt to be sure, pretty like the stained glass in the churches, distracting enough for those who desperately want to keep believing. Science is too busy with real intellectual work to pay attention to theology’s amusements. Science is already rendering yesterday’s theologies obsolete with better explanations, even while it uncovers fresh curiosities to be collected up for the next generation’s theologians. Science marches on, moving faster than the parasites following its trail.

In a way, naturalism also displaces supernaturalism without ever quite dispelling it. Naturalism has no demonstrable proofs to equip the executioner’s hand beyond what science already supplies; naturalism similarly admits how many curiosities about the world remain, echoing the humility of science. Naturalism is theology’s rival and natural home for those done with religion, but naturalism should not be mistaken for theology’s executioner either.

Everyone needs to realize how it is not necessary to prove naturalism in order to reject supernaturalism as implausible. Theology is now cleverly designed to linger on so long as naturalists keep supposing that it is they who are laboring under the burden of proof. Every time a naturalist is heard to honestly admit, “We don’t have a scientific explanation for that yet,” the bells of St. Mary’s are heard ringing in victory. There should no shame in admitting ignorance, but religions should be ashamed for converting others’ ignorance into their own virtue. Naturalism ought not be dragged into playing that game in the first place. Naturalism will never be in a position to “prove itself true,” for that would require science to explain all curiosities, something for only the far future to bring, if ever.

That is why theologians love the notion that naturalism would have be proven correct before any refutation of supernaturalism could start. After all, proving naturalism correct is epistemically and rhetorically difficult. To epistemically prove naturalism as correct, the naturalist must give many good reasons for showing that science could in principle answer all the tough questions, such as explaining the universe’s origin, the mind-body relationship, and religious experiences. So long as a few tough questions appear beyond science’s present-day competency, supernaturalism can keep feeling immune from refutation. To rhetorically show naturalism as correct, the naturalist must assume a posture of someone able to know that nature is all that there is, and be so sure that no god exists too. So long as the naturalist gets put in the awkward position of claiming to know so much, the supernaturalist can advantageously appear to be the humbler believer.

Too many naturalists fall into this argumentative trap. After all, debates are advertised as matching the Atheist naturalist up against the Theist supernaturalist. This format arouses expectations on all sides that the Atheist must demonstrate the naturalism case, and then the Theist must demonstrate the supernaturalist case, and the better arguer for their respective position is the winner. This format is already prejudiced against naturalism. The Atheist doesn’t have scientific answers to every cosmic question, and pointing out a couple of open scientific questions gives the Theist plenty of debating ammunition. Logically, this is quite unfair, but debate audiences aren’t sufficiently prepared to be logically fair.

This general manner of pitting naturalism vs. supernaturalism lends other rhetorical advantages to supernaturalism. Theology has entrenched supernaturalism as a “worldview” and complains bitterly when science is wielded against it, accusing naturalism of begging the question. For example, theology detests how scientific history refuses to take Biblical stories about miracles as given empirical facts, complaining that history’s “naturalistic bias” prevents it from admitting miracles. Of course, it is only religious bias operating here, when theology expects immediate admittance of Biblical miracles as ‘good’ evidence when there’s no such evidence in the first place. All the same, people impressed by mere rhetorical effect can’t tell who is actually begging the question. They seem even more impressed when the Theist announces how science is irrelevant in any case because it can’t disprove God. While science’s inability to disprove supernaturalism is technically correct, too many people assume this is a debating point scored in favor of the Theist, when in fact theology should be ashamed by the way that evidence can’t help supernaturalism either.

If arguing for naturalism isn’t enough to disprove supernaturalism, something more is required. But what would that be? It is quite correct that naturalism and supernaturalism are strictly opposed; if one is true, the other must be false. However, proving one false does not deliver a verification of the other’s truth. These are not the only two metaphysical alternatives, after all. Three more competitors have long been around: platonism, idealism, and skepticism. However implausible, these lingering alternatives complicate the debating situation. Only philosophy can finally adjudicate among all five metaphysical options, and only philosophy is properly equipped to serve as theology’s executioner.

Philosophy is especially well-equipped to deal with theology’s death-struggles as it seeks aid from one of the other minor options. Since theology’s traditional arguments from natural evidence are all fallacious failures, it is forced to appeal to the plausibility of the alternatives for assistance. Platonism, idealism, and skepticism are not obvious allies with supernaturalistic religion; only strenuous theological contortions make alliances possible. Platonism postulates an unnatural realm of purely intellectual entities responsible for making truths of reason absolutely tr
ue. Such static intellectual purities are hardly like the anthropomorphic gods that people prefer to pray to, but a theological alliance attempts a proof for a platonic deity able to expose naturalism as inadequate. Idealism takes consciousness to be the ultimate kind of reality, so that human minds are self-sufficiently real and intrinsically valuable. Theology would much prefer that humans depend on God for existence and value, but an alliance could at least explain how the human soul and God’s mind has much in common. Metaphysical skepticism demands immediate empirical proof for everything, and then complains that nothing or almost nothing passes this strict test for knowledge. Traditional theology isn’t skeptical, but existentialist and post-modern theologies are happy to start from agnosticism and hope that emotional faith could lead on towards God.

Why is philosophy so useful? First, the logical methods needed for rendering supernaturalism quite implausible do not rely on the correctness of naturalism. Common sense rationality and logic, the core of philosophy around the world, is sufficient to do the job. Long before any adequate scientific naturalism was forged, philosophical thinkers from Greece to China had cast doubt on supernaturalism using only sound logical thinking. Basically, notions of god are either (a) self-contradictory and incoherent; (b) too vague to enjoy any support from evidence; or (c) devoid of any explanatory relevance to the world.

Second, philosophy dispels the theological alliances sought by supernaturalism. Starting with platonism, platonic theism asks naturalism to explain how its scientific knowledge could be correct, when the inner logic of science must have unnatural grounds. For example, the theist complains that a crude brain produced by haphazard evolution couldn’t know much, and surely could never know rational truths or even figure out scientific theories on its own. There must be something intellectually unnatural (divine?) about us, then. This only appears to be tough problem for naturalism, however. Neither logic nor scientific method are the products of any individual brain, first of all – methods of reasoning arise from large aggregates of brains harnessed together over many generations, passing down more refined techniques over time. No human brain evolved to do logic or science, any more than the brain was evolved for playing jazz or building bridges. Furthermore, philosophy of science reminds us that science never promises absolute truth, but only provisional and fallible (but very practical) knowledge. Proceeding to idealism, theism only rarely accepts transcendentalism’s theory that everything is mind and that matter is unreal. Only a little philosophizing is needed to show how transcendentalism either guarantees independent human immortality and makes us perfectly divine without God’s help, or transcendentalism risks making all minds just a part of God’s mind, in which case God does everything (including sin) and we do nothing by ourselves. Theism typically requires a tension between keeping us utterly dependent on God, yet capable of freely sinning on our own, so this transcendentalist alliance is inherently unstable.

Philosophy’s handling of an alliance between theism and skepticism is trickier. A skeptical theism simultaneously says that reason cannot demonstrate God’s existence (agnosticism is unavoidable), yet it also says that people’s practical needs will push them on ahead towards belief so they can gain the emotional benefits of religious faith. Call this alliance romanticism, religious pragmatism, or existentialist theology – by whatever name, the ploy is the same: theologians reassure people about thinking that God might not exist, urging them to set aside weak reason and instead use their strong hearts to seek the comforting feeling of divine presence. Skeptical theism periodically erupts when things look very bad for traditional theology. In a way, skeptical theism is calling people back to simple ritualized religion without the intellectual embellishments. Philosophically, such skeptical agnosticism is warranted – no one can know that God exists. However, how can philosophy deal with the emotional attractions of religious faith? After all, philosophy most directly challenges theology, not the underlying cultural religiosity. Philosophy is not well-designed for attacking or destroying some genuine emotional needs of humanity. However, philosophy can support positive replacements for religion: humanist ethics for community life, democratic governments for stable global orders, civilized cultures of security and opportunity for all, and the like. No single thing replaces religion entirely, but philosophy is essential for guiding humanity away from excessive reliance on religion.

Establishing naturalism is not necessary for demonstrating supernaturalism’s implausibility. Naturalism is the sensible default option worthy of commitment after one realizes that the notion of God is empty, and nothing is left to hold theism together.